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If music be the food of love, play on

If music be the food of love, play on

By: Robert St. John - April 22, 2024

  • Robert St. John says eating a dish can trigger a song in his head that takes him back to the first time he heard it.

Music has been a constant companion throughout my life. It has accompanied me in times of joy and sorrow and never let me down.

My earliest memories are of my bedroom on 22nd Ave in my hometown of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. I was probably four or five years old. I had a small, cheap, table-mounted open-top record player. A babysitter in my neighborhood gifted me two 45 singles, Herman’s Hermits “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter,” and The Beatles, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” I probably looked at the Herman’s Hermits song as novelty song even at that age. But that Beatles record opened a door. It was unlike everything else. It moved me. I became obsessed with it, and other songs like it. It would start the lifelong love affair I’ve had with that band, and with all music.

I spent a lot of spare time in my youth hanging out in record stores. I didn’t have much money to purchase records, but I could spend hours flipping through bins, looking at album covers, and exhaustively studying the art and photographs on the front and back sleeves of the records. I was the annoying kid who asked tireless questions of the salesclerks who worked in the record stores. Back then the only way to see a band in Hattiesburg, MS was to catch them on a network variety show— typically lip-syncing— attend a concert at the coliseum on the campus of the University of Southern Mississippi, or study album art.

I learned about bands and music from the covers of their albums, reading Rolling Stone magazine, and mining knowledge from record store employees. A certain truth in life is 95% of the people who work in record stores are huge music fans, and if one is persistent enough, one can learn a lot from them.

My mother forced me take piano lessons at nine years old. The teacher, Mrs. Huthmaker, was the organist at our church. The only songs she would teach me were out of the Methodist Hymnal. I have nothing against the old traditional hymns at my church, but as a nine year old I wanted to learn the music I was hearing in record stores and on the radio. Though every time I would bring in sheet music of popular songs I was hearing on the radio Mrs. Huthmaker would pull out the Methodist Hymnal and make me practice, “Just As I Am,” over and over and over and over. I think she considered bands such as The Beatles, Stones, and Zeppelin as “Satan’s music.”

My brief piano career coincided with the release of George Harrison’s first solo album, “All Things Must Pass.” The hit single on that album was, “My Sweet Lord.” I can remember thinking to myself, “Mrs. Huthmaker will certainly like this. It’s a song I love— from a former Beatle no less— and it should fit in with her agenda.” At the time, it appeared her agenda was to crown me as pianist-in-waiting at Main Street United Methodist Church. I used all my allowance to buy the sheet music to “My Sweet Lord,” and brought it to the next lesson. “Mrs. Huthmaker I would like to learn this song.”

She took one look at the title and beamed, “Robert, I would love to teach you this song.” Then she opened the sheet music and read lyrics to the background vocals— all Hare Krishna chants— “Hare Krishna, Hare Lama, Hare Hare, Hari Krishna.” She was not happy. Her pianist-in-waiting now appeared to be abandoning Wesleyanism. I guess in her mind, the obvious next move was shaving my head, and being the only nine year old hanging out in airports with a tambourine and an orange robe.

All I wanted to do was learn piano music that I loved. George’s solo record marked the end of my piano career as Mrs. Huthmaker told my mother that I might want to try a different instrument. For the first time in my life, I was fired. There would be other times. At 10 years old I picked up the guitar and never looked back.

I started working as a disc jockey at a local radio station in 1977. Today, when I read the annual statement of my tax history from the internal Revenue Service, I laugh that I virtually made no money as a disc jockey, $2.35 per hour. The radio station didn’t know it, but— had I had any money— I would have paid them to let me sit in a room filled with records playing music for the masses. It was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. I mostly worked the 7:00 PM to midnight shift through high school.

Other than my immediate family, food and music were my first two loves. They have always been intertwined in my life. I live with music. There is almost always a song in my head, not a full song, but a snippet of a chorus or verse playing over and over and over and over. I don’t know if that’s a symptom of my severe ADHD, or if everyone deals with that. But the song plays over and over until I listen to another song. Then when that song ends, a snippet of it is on constant repeat in my brain.

I associate food with songs and vice versa. Eating a dish can trigger a song in my head that takes me back to the first time I heard it. Conversely, hearing a song can take me back to an item I was eating when the song played. I can’t remember most people’s names or what I ate for breakfast two days ago, but I can remember the lyrics from an obscure song, from a long-forgotten band, that I listened to 50 years ago.

There are even foods to which I assign music labels. I have a list of Grateful Dead foods. Those are foods that everyone else seems to like that I don’t like at all. Most of my friends are fans of the Grateful Dead. I am not.

Some of my Grateful Dead foods are coffee and Brussels sprouts. People love coffee, they are fanatical about it. They will wait in line for long stretches to pay exorbitant prices for a cup of coffee. People loved The Grateful Dead. They camped out overnight to see their shows, and when the band was active would travel great distances, over and over, to see them play, sometimes every day.

My list of Grateful Dead foods gets shorter as I get older. Tastes change and I add previously disliked food items to my lineup. My musical taste changes as well. I am a rock and roll guy. Most popular music that was recorded and released between 1965 and 1995 is in my wheelhouse. Though I have always loved legit, classic-country music and in my forties started to appreciate jazz and classical music.

Though I sometimes wonder if life would have been different if Mrs. Huthmaker would have gotten her way. Or what I would be listening to, what I would be eating— or if I would even be in the restaurant business— had I never heard the Beatles’, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” I can’t remember that babysitter’s name. but I owe her a debt of gratitude for a lifetime of food and music.



This week’s recipe: Spinach Flan

Cibreo in Florence is one of my favorite Italian restaurants. Chef Fabio Picchi serves a light-as-air spinach flan as a course on his tasting menu. This is my version, which is a nice, light vegetarian first course option.


  • 2 cups Heavy cream
  • 10 oz. package frozen chopped spinach, thawed, drained well
  • 4 Eggs
  • 2 tsp Kosher salt
  • 1 tsp Fresh ground black pepper
  • 1/8 tsp Ground nutmeg

Grated Parmigiano Reggiano as needed for garnish

1 recipe Roasted Tomato Coulis

Roasted Tomato Coulis

  • 6 Roma tomatoes
  • 1 Tbl Vegetable oil
  • ½ tsp Kosher salt
  • ¼ tsp Fresh ground black pepper


Preheat oven to 275.

Combine heavy cream and spinach in a small sauce pot and warm over low heat, just to take the chill off.

Remove from heat and puree until smooth. Strain through a chinois. Discard any solids that remain.

Transfer to a bowl and combine remaining ingredients gently.

Coat 8 4-6 oz. oven safe ramekins with non-stick spray and divide mixture among them. Bake in a water bath for 30 minutes or until set. Allow to cool slightly. Using a paring knife, loosen the flan from around the edges and unmold onto desired plate. Garnish with fresh grated Parmigiano Reggiano.

Yield: 8 servings

Roasted Tomato Coulis

Preheat oven to 350.

Coat tomatoes in oil and place on sheet pan in the oven for 20-30 minutes, until skins begin to wrinkle and begin browning. Rotate tomatoes every 10 minutes to avoid one side burning.

Allow to cool just enough to handle, remove skins and place in food processor or blender with salt and pepper. Puree until smooth. Pass through a chinois if a smoother texture is desired. Serve warm.

Yield: 1 cup

About the Author(s)
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Robert St. John

Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler and world-class eater. He has spent four decades in the restaurant business, thirty-three of those as the owner of the Crescent City Grill, Mahogany Bar, Branch, Tabella, Ed’s Burger Joint, The Midtowner, and El Rayo Tex-Mex in Hattiesburg, as well as Highball Lanes, The Pearl, The Capri, and Enzo Osteria in the Jackson area. Robert has written eleven books including An Italian Palate, written in Europe while traveling through 72 cities in 17 countries in six months with his wife and two children. Robert has written his syndicated newspaper column for twenty years. Read more about Robert at